On February 8th, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin responded to a question about the Philippines’ plans to increase their military presence in Batanes province. Wang specifically said that “China and the Philippines are neighbors across the sea. Friendly exchanges predominate in the history of our bilateral relations,” in his response. He also said that both countries should have good relations based on friendship and mutual respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference in their countries’ internal affairs.
However, Wang then stressed “that the Taiwan question is at the heart of China’s core interests and is a red line and bottom line that must not be crossed.” He then said that relevant Philippine entities need to understand this clearly, tread carefully, and “don’t play with fire on this question to avoid being manipulated and eventually hurt.”
Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. made the statement to expand the number of facilities and troops in the province during a visit to Batanes province on February 7th. Teodoro noted the strategic location of the province as being the “spearhead of the Philippines as far as the northern baseline is concerned” during the visit, according to a Philippine Navy statement.
Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Romeo S. Brawner Jr. and Philippine Navy Commander Vice Admiral Toribo D. Adaci were also among the officers that accompanied Terodoro. The group inspected the facility on Mavulis as well as the ongoing construction of Naval Forward Operating Base Mahatao, located on Batan Island, the province’s biggest island.
Wang’s comments reflect the concern that China has regarding the potential for the Philippines to expand their military presence in the strategically important province. The reason why is due to the province’s location in the Luzon Strait, specifically the Bashi Channel. For example, Mavulis Island, where Secretary Teodoro and other senior AFP officers visited, is located approximately 88 miles (142 km) from Cape Eluanbi, located in southern Taiwan. These islands occupy a strategic location that could provide the Philippines and the United States with an area to evacuate civilians and important officials during the leadup or opening stages of an invasion of Taiwan.
The island’s strategic location would also mean that both the Philippines and the United States would position troops and equipment in the weeks leading to an invasion. Furthermore, the Philippines could potentially agree to let one of the future AFP bases in the province become a site under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Both countries would position personnel and equipment in the province is to restrict movement in the Bashi Channel by People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels or aircraft during a conflict.
In a Taiwan invasion, the PLAN would deploy a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) and other warships into the Philippine Sea to launch strikes at bases located along Taiwan’s eastern coast. The CSG and other vessels would also be deployed near Guam to complicate any U.S. and allied defense planning in responding to an invasion of Taiwan by China. However, the potential deployment of Brahmos, HIMARS or NMESIS missile systems by the Philippines or the United States to the province would likely prevent China from sailing through the channel without first destroying or seizing the islands.
However, both countries also understand that China will likely attempt to capture and occupy these islands during any conflict. The Philippines and the United States began to train on how to defend and take back these islands during the 2023 Balikatan exercise. Both countries trained on how to conduct an air assault to recapture the Batanes Islands after a “fictitious country” occupied them. Furthermore, the AFP will likely expand the number, size, and complexity of the exercises in the province in 2024’s iteration of Balikatan. The Commander of Northern Luzon Command, Lt. General Fernyl Buca, visited the military detachments on Mavulis and Basco located on Batan Island on January 27th and 28th. Several Balikatan exercise planners also accompanied Buca during his visit, hinting that the country will incorporate these two islands into the exercise scenarios.